Henry David Thoreau wore many hats in his lifetime – he was an essayist, a poet, a philosopher, an abolitionist, a naturalist, and a critic. He is best known for his book Walden, a collection of his experiences with nature, which became one of the most influential and compelling books in American literature, and his essay “Civil Disobedience,” which argues in favor of resistance movements in unjust political times.
In celebration of Thoreau’s 200th birthday this summer, Penguin Classics conducted an interview with two of their editors: Kristen Case, editor of Walden, and Jeffrey Cramer, editor of The Portable Thoreau.
PENGUIN CLASSICS: Why are you interested in Walden and Civil Disobedience?
JEFFREY CRAMER: I’m interested in Thoreau’s writings because he compels me to ask the questions I do not necessarily want to hear. Since the answers change, not only from generation to generation but for each individual from year to year, Thoreau’s writings are texts to which we return, texts constantly reflecting our own evolution. His writings are vital and relevant because the society about which he wrote is not distant from us in either time or in mind. Thoreau wrote to and about his contemporaries, and we are his contemporaries as long as we continue to think as his neighbors did. Thoreau’s works remain, and will remain, contemporary as long as we read but fail to comprehend, study but fail to learn.
KRISTEN CASE: I’m interested in these texts for so many reasons–but if I had to pick the central one I suppose it would be because Thoreau is a model for me as a writer: someone who uses words not just to explain or express already finished thought but also to launch himself and his readers into new thinking. I admire his commitment to being at the unfinished edge of thought; to allowing his finished thoughts to give way to something more provisional; to stay with the difficult, the new, the unsettling. This courage is evident in all of his writing.
PC: By Thoreau’s terms, what does it mean to be a good neighbor?
JC: A good neighbor — different from being a good friend — “will feed me if I should be starving, or warm me if I should be freezing, or pull me out of a ditch if I should ever fall into one,” but that is unrelated to what makes a good friend, “one who incessantly pays us the compliment of expecting from us all the virtues.” Friends “cherish each other’s hopes. They are kind to each other’s dreams.” This is the ultimate interpersonal relationship for Thoreau.
KC: For Thoreau, being a good neighbor, like being a good citizen, involves recognizing that acting or speaking in the interest of the common good sometimes necessitates dissent from common assumptions or commonly held views. His willingness to dissent, to confront, to provoke, is, in my view, anyway, less a mark of his distance from his neighbors than a measure of his true neighborliness. For him being a good neighbor also involved redefining who counts as a neighbor: animals, plants, and ghosts, as well as marginalized human inhabitants of Concord were neighbors to him. His sense of his own relatedness to all kinds of others is really palpable in Walden. I think this is best illustrated by his saying that “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” When we “find ourselves,” we find ourselves in relation to others, and finally to everything in the world.
PC: How does a citizen respond to unjust laws?
JC: First by non-participation in, and withdrawing support of, that which is unjust. Thoreau was long an advocate for individual resistance to deal with political issues but he also understood that there are situations when withholding support is not the same as actively participating in righting a wrong. “Even voting for the right is doing nothing for it,” he said. In some way he is making the same distinction theologians make between sins of commission and those of omission. It was no longer simply a refusal to commit wrong that was action enough, but that by omitting to actively work against, in this case, slavery, you were supporting it. “Action from principle,” he wrote, “changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary, and does not consist wholly of anything which was. It not only divides states and churches, it divides families; aye, it divides the individual, separating the diabolical in him from the divine.” So in today’s world we find it necessary to go beyond non-participation and find ways to keep injustice in front of our eyes and never lose sight of what we’re trying to do to make this a better and more equitable world for all.
KC: First of all, good citizens, in Thoreau’s sense, look unflinchingly at their own complicity with unjust laws. “Civil Disobedience” calls first and foremost for a kind of self-discipline that involves looking very closely at the extent to which one wittingly or unwittingly upholds or participates in injustice. And then, in the wake of that recognition, one begins the slow, difficult, idiosyncratic work of trying to create what he calls a “counter friction” within the spaces of one’s complicity. To personally resist complicity with injustice. I don’t think he saw any one formula for this kind of resistance; he saw it as an absolutely personal, almost artistic achievement. This is what he means by “Make your life a counter-friction to stop the machine.”
PC: Why do graduates come to Thoreau? Why do we look to him when we are at a crossroads?
JC: Readers approach seminal texts looking for answers but Thoreau is different. He may offer his solutions to his life’s predicaments but he knows that his answers are not answers for everyone, nor does he want them to be. People, whether they are aware of it or not, do not go to Thoreau for answers — they go for questions. They go to be challenged. They go to be provoked and stimulated. When he says that he wants to “brag as lustily as chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up,” we are his neighbors. We’re the ones who need awakening. We’re the ones with our eyes on our screens, with our ears blocked with ear-buds, with our thoughts distracted by noise. We’ve lost the ability to be alone with our thoughts. Thoreau is a writer against whom we should try ourselves because he forces us to ask the questions we do not necessarily want to hear. To put it simply, he makes us think.
KC: People look to Thoreau whenever the question of what to do with one’s life arises because of his particular courage in facing that question, of facing it, as it were, all the way down. What IS life? What are we doing here? What’s the best way to spend a day or a life? Facing these question is hard and takes courage, and answering them well involves all of our ingenuity and intelligence. Thoreau modelled those qualities in a way that transcends his particular life choices. So for me he’s a model for how to face (and keep facing) the question, more than a source of answers.
PC: How might Thoreau respond to climate change? Additionally, how did Thoreau understand the lessons of the natural world and how do those lessons still apply today?
JC: He wouldn’t respond to climate change, in part because change is what happens, and in part because Thoreau did not exist in a time when it was conceivable that man could cause damage to such an extent that it could threaten our existence. The natural world offers us a sense of eternity and continuance, but it also offers us a constant flux. He reminds us: “Is not the world forever beginning & coming to an end…?” To place this 19th century writer in our 21st century world and try to surmise what he would say or do is impossible. We may hope that he would respond to the crisis of climate change in the same way he responded to issues of slavery in his day but there is no way to predict. No reader of “Civil Disobedience” could have predicted the supporter of John Brown who would say, “I do not wish to kill nor to be killed, but I can foresee circumstances in which both these things would be by me unavoidable.” In fact, one of Thoreau’s most inspiring characteristics is his necessity to continually re-examine even those concepts that we would now categorize as wholeheartedly “Thoreauvian.”
Thoreau wanted “to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature,” reminding us that human life is passing within nature. We are not something discrete, something outside of nature, but, as Thoreau said, “part and parcel.” It is when we think of ourselves as something unique that has somehow evolved away from nature that we begin to think we can control it or that we’re in charge. We need to no longer think of mankind as something special or chosen. “The poet says the proper study of mankind is man. I say study to forget all that,” Thoreau wrote, “—take wider views of the universe.” Only when we look beyond ourselves do we begin to realize where and what we are.
KC: Well, I think he’d be devastated to learn how little progress we’ve made in coming to see ourselves, as he did, as part of the world, in deep relation with our non-human neighbors. He would absolutely object, not only to our abuse of the natural world, but to the assumption of our separateness that underlies and justifies that abuse. And yes, his ideas about how to really get to know a place or a plant or a season are absolutely relevant to the ongoing project of coming into a less violent relation with the natural world. He’s one of our most compelling writers about what it means to get to know oneself and one’s neighborhood, which for him are part of the same enterprise.
PC: Why do you think Thoreau is having a sort of renaissance and resonating with people in this historical moment?
JC: Any time the world is in distress and fluctuation, people look for something solid on to which they may hold on — religion, philosophy, heroes, science. Thoreau, for many, suggests fairly concrete ways in which we can make the world a better place. His sense that there are higher laws or ideals that supersede civil law is paramount. His criticism of how we walk through life asleep and make decisions without thinking strikes a nerve. We are reminded of the importance of deliberation and mindfulness. And because a careful reading of Walden shows it to be not a book about a man living in the woods but a book about a man living.
Thoreau questioned the individual’s role and obligations, not to society only, but to himself: how should he live, how should he interact with his neighbors, how should he obligate himself to the laws, not of the society within which he lived, but to those laws which were higher than those of the land: moral or religious principles, or laws of conscience, that take precedence over the constitutions or statutes of society. As we find ourselves in such a divisive and short-sighted world, we search for something more universal, something that transcends our limited vision. Thoreau offers a sure and impassioned voice in the midst of our angst and struggling.
KC: We’re seeing an increasing recognition of political resistance as a moral imperative, which is exactly the theme of “Civil Disobedience.” This historical moment–in which immigrants and the poor are actively persecuted, and in which white supremacy is openly advocated at the highest levels of power-feels a lot like Thoreau’s moment in the decades before the Civil War, in which slavery was increasingly something that could not be ignored, toward which one could not be neutral. Many people who, like Thoreau, would prefer to “stay out of politics” are finding that they can’t. Thoreau offers one model of how to face that moment.
PC: For you, personally, what is the most important lesson to take away from Thoreau in this time?
JC: We must follow our own path. We must be content to be who and what we are, not wish to be other, and, as Thoreau said, “Obey your calling rather, and it will not be whither your neighbors and kind friends and patrons expect or desire, but be true nevertheless, and choose not, nor go whither they will call you.” Or, as Thoreau put it so simply, “If I am not I, who will be?”
KC: For me the central lesson is always to keep asking questions. Don’t let the question of how to live become settled by habit, routine, or received answer. Actively make your life. For me this means not conceiving of life as a problem to solve (with a job or a house or a particular kind of family arrangement, for example) but trying to choose every day the right way to be in the life in which you find yourself: in your relationships, in your work, in your politics, in your habits, recognizing that what’s right today may not be right tomorrow, and that what’s right for you may not be right for your neighbor. Keeping these questions open is really hard work; it’s a lot easier to just keep doing what you always do without thinking too much about it. But reading Thoreau encourages me to keep trying.